Affect and Effect: Mastery’s VALIS
In musicology, the Doctrine of the Affections is the belief and study of music’s ability to arouse different emotions in the listener. A composer, armed with a thorough knowledge of the subject, could theoretically manipulate notes, lengths, spaces, instrumentation, etc. in his or her music to create a predictable outcome for the listener. Even the most casual listener knows this to be true on some level; one can differentiate the emotional weight in Barber’s Adagio versus the shadowy terror of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain with ease. Identifying and studying a particular affect (the ‘a’ pronounced as it is in ‘apple’), however, can zoom in on specific note and interval choices and all of the subjectivity that comes with each step. While the area of study has significantly changed over the centuries (becoming thankfully modernized and doing away with “animal spirits and vapors”), aesthetic study will inevitably involve a discussion on deconstructing music and examining what it is that communicates a given affect.
With a handful of demos, splits, and compilations under its belt, Ephemeral Domignostika’s (let’s call him ED from now on) one-man project Mastery finally released its first full length this year. VALIS is a brilliant essay on the subject of avant-garde black metal. The 41 minutes of this album span a ridiculous number of sections (“upwards of 100 riffs per song” is no exaggeration in the promo), moments, and sound choices, but I believe the entire length can be unified under a single affect: complete, unrelenting urgency. There is never a moment in the album that lacks manic haste and razor sharp insistence. The way that urgency is communicated and used throughout the album creates the effect of a hypnotic buzz saw, unrelenting in its outcome and steadfast in delivery. While I would love to dissect each section in a true study of affections, I have neither the time nor the brainpower to do so. Instead, let’s take a look at broad points.
The album alternates between three full on metal tracks and two ambient soundscape tracks. “V.A.L.I.S.V.E.S.S.E.L.” sets the tone from the beginning with a brief, demented string outburst before charging ahead with a nearly 18-minute whirlwind of harsh, free form black metal influenced by punk, thrash, and avant-garde tonality. The instrumental and vocal tones blend together to create a jagged, sharp consistency; if there was ever a sound that could alter the laws of the universe to solidify and slash your throat, it would be the collective tones on this album. After six minutes of unrelenting energy, the air suddenly clears to a soft acoustic section. However, ED deftly retains the original affect with a muted, low-mixed blast beat that injects urgency into an otherwise relaxed atmosphere. The song kicks back into high gear a minute later, and continues for 10:30 minutes of raw fury.
The mixing of affect and effect is an interesting point after taking in the first track. Grindcore and harsh, thrashy black metal acts are no stranger to all-out urgency as discussed here, but we often see it in the form of short, high-energy songs, where digestion is manageable. So the effect of that affect being stretched out over nearly 18 minutes is unsettling to say the least, and accessibility is not even in the question here. Like the hypnotic buzz saw mentioned earlier, there is no wavering in outcome and no reasoning for a point to hold on to.
The two other metal tracks, “L.O.R.E.S.E.E.K.E.R.” and “S.T.A.R.S.E.E.K.E.R.”, are only somewhat shorter, and dedicated listening is no less a feat. Starting at 2:07 in the former, juxtaposition of range creates a broader sound, but the resulting dissonance that ED has wonderfully handled throughout the album retains the same razor sharp quality. Then at 2:35, the two guitar tracks split to another harshly broad, open chord that doesn’t change in pitch or rhythm for over a minute, a terrifyingly monotonous and effective span of time for an album that has tumbled, careened, and slashed its way through hundreds of sections thus far. “S.T.A.R.S.E.E.K.E.R.” roars to life after the ambient “I.L.K.S.E.E.K.E.R.”, featuring gliding, shape-shifting riffs that act as the sonic equivalent of a flensing knife slicing through long, curving cuts of flesh. Once again showing a serious flair for effective dissonance, the first half features riffs that slide in and out of harsh, razor sharp tonalities, backed by relentless bass glissandos. 6:18 is something of a dividing line, and while we get plenty of slide-riffs throughout the rest of the tune, ED takes a more time on certain chords to hammer his point across.
If you aren’t drained as a listener by the end of this album, I don’t want to know how intense your life is. Even the ambient tracks have an urgent buzzing beneath the surface, like a sick machine that can’t be turned off. ED demonstrates unsettling urgency throughout VALIS that goes beyond a simple mixing of genres and traits. If the idea of accessibility can be thrown away entirely and the idea of razor sharp, momentary aesthetic can be embraced, Mastery will more than prove their name for the listener. When the label themselves call it “the most extreme record The Flenser has ever released,” you better pay attention.
Listen and purchase the album here